I had a sick, here-we-go-again feeling while reading Kate Shellnutt’s Feb 7 piece on the removal of Steve Timmis as leader of Acts 29. But what stopped me in my tracks was this paragraph late in the piece:

According to a copy of a 2015 letter sent to Acts 29 president Chandler and obtained by CT, five staff members based in the Dallas area described their new leader as “bullying,” “lacking humility,” “developing a culture of fear,” and “overly controlling beyond the bounds of Acts 29,” with examples spanning 19 pages.

Having been down this road before with Mark Driscoll and others, you might expect that the piece would continue, “After considering the report of the staff members, Chandler placed Timmis on leave pending an investigation of Timmis and his church culture.” We might expect some measure of sobriety given some painful history.

Instead, Kate writes:

During a meeting with Chandler and two board members to discuss the letter, all five were fired and asked to sign non-disclosure agreements as a condition of their severance packages. They were shocked.

And then, what follows is a line I’ve heard countless times in church planting assessments and in organizational consultations and staff reviews:

Chandler told CT that, at the time, he saw it as a clash in leadership styles, not as indicators of abuse.

Let me be crystal clear: bullying, controlling, and scaring are not characteristics of any “leadership style” I find worthy of “Christian” leadership. These descriptors do not remotely approach the character of a Jesus-following leader. These pastors described an abusive pastor and abusive culture. And because of this, Chandler will rightly be called to account for what transpired. 

I want to emphasize what is so often overlooked:

Five Acts 29 staff members lives were unalterably changed because of this decision.

These are the pastors I often talk to on the other side of this predictable and abusive process of being silenced. Some have spouses and children. They all bear trauma in their bodies and brains. Sleeplessness. Paranoia. Shame. Rage. Indecision. Depression. Anxiety. Suicidal thoughts. 

Some cope by jumping back in too soon, and others by too-much-drink.

A good many face financial hardship.

Some never pastor again. 

Most lose relationships forged during their time serving the church.

All suffer profoundly. 

For me, this is what hurts the most. I’ve sat with pastors like these in their quiet rage and cathartic tears and I can’t emphasize enough how lost and forgotten they feel. 

So five years later, what does Acts 29 owe the pastors/families impacted by an abusive leader over the course of many, many years? What does it owe the wider network and the many pastors who serve with integrity and humility? 

A first important step is to welcome in an outside investigator like GRACE. Many churches/networks conduct in-house investigations that perpetuate the same patterns of self-protection. That can’t happen here. Sadly, Acts 29 must face the reality that this history repeats itself too often, and must commit to ending this pattern of abuse. What if this network became known not just for its planting but for its commitment to thoroughgoing and systemic healing, reconciliation, and ongoing health? 

To facilitate an effective investigation, all pastors fired should be released from their NDA’s immediately and invited to tell their stories. I can’t emphasize this enough – the culture of church NDA’s is vast and toxic, reaching beyond Acts 29 but often found in church planting contexts. We need to start talking about this phenomenon – why it exists and how it shows up in particular ecclesial contexts and who is harmed. 

With this, and for the sake of transparency, the leaders of Acts 29 must welcome new information, however disruptive, unsettling, or embarrassing. In this process, Acts 29 needs to be ready to re-engage those hurt and harmed by abusive leadership, not merely with polite apologies but with reparation, if necessary. This should include commitments to support therapy and recovery. Each pastor’s story needs to be considered. This is painful and uncomfortable and timely, and so very necessary. 

I emphasize this because while much of the attention in situations like these is focused on the leaders responsible, often with great fanfare and social media drama, the traumatized survivors of the abusive leader are often forgotten. We ignore how being fired impacts one’s mental health, livelihood, reputation, and more. These are men and women with names, image-bearers whose dignity was attacked.  

Finally, I have friends who’ve planted and pastor Acts 29 churches. I’ve counseled Acts 29 pastors and led trainings. My friend Rich Plass has given years of effort to fostering emotional and spiritual health in this network. Some who’ve reached out to me are sick and confused and genuinely wondering if they can remain. I’m relentlessly hopeful, but serious deconstruction needs to happen before folks will trust again. 

If you’re a leader in Acts 29, I appeal to you not to settle for a polite apology. For churches to heal from this epidemic of narcissism, all must walk toward the light once and for all, to tell stories, to speak truthfully, to listen patiently, to repent fully, to deconstruct fully. Don’t let phrases like “but God is doing so many good things” silence an honest appraisal of the dark shadow side of your network. I know no other path to transformation than through the dark night. 

I’m hurting for you and praying for you. I don’t know the pastors who were fired, but tonight I’m particularly concerned for you. How are you caring for yourselves? How is trauma impacting your life, health and relationships? Who are you talking to? What do you need?

I’m an outsider, but I’ve got a big heart for good friends across this network who are in pain and confused right now. So, do the hard work. Move toward those who’ve been hurt. Don’t settle for bandaids…subject yourself to major surgery, the cruciform way. 

Follow the way of Jesus through a painful wilderness into a better future.

Grace and peace,

Chuck

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I am a longtime pastor, therapist, and professor of pastoral care and christian spirituality at Western Theological Seminary (MI). My latest book is born out of many years of experience – When Narcissism Comes to Church releases March 17. 

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22 thoughts on “Narcissism is not a “leadership style”

  1. Chuck, thank you for doing the work surrounding this. Our family is six years on the other side of a fallout from an abusive leader. I was administrative staff. My husband was an elder. One of the most difficult things these days for us is finding connection in a church and even with God. Church used to be one of the most important things in our lives, but even after much counseling church can bring up so much pain. It’s very hard to find others in the church who understand why it’s so hard, too. I believe that things could have been so much better, had people been willing to talk about the core issues around what happened and bring it out into the light. But they were not willing. It was more important to protect their reputation and move on. Your compassionate approach to the healing of all involved is much needed. I look forward to reading your book.

  2. Thanks for speaking out on this subject Chuck, it’s important. I’ve not heard of you or your work before and not been a part of an Acts 29 ministry but everything you write resonates with my most recent experience pastoring. Unfortunately I’ve not returned to pastoring and don’t plan to but I’ve been able to work through and process my experience properly. People like you help those of us who have been affected by toxic leadership and the work you do is so valuable.

  3. Thank you so much for this. As a pastors wife who was heavily involved in Acts 29 for 10 years and has experienced this leadership and this heart breaking abuse of leadership, I thank you for Your wisdom and call to action in this network. I am praying for this network that God would come and redeem what’s broken.

  4. Thank you so much for this. As a pastor’s wife that was in Acts 29 for 10 years, my husband and I have sadly experienced this leadership and this abuse of leadership and the only way we are still in ministry is because of the excellent care we have received from Rich Plass at Crosspoint. Thank you for your wisdom and call to action. I am praying for this network, that God would redeem the brokenness that’s taking place.

  5. I can’t help but feel tears in my eyes. Do you have any idea how reading this heals a bit of the pain? My husband, former church staff member, and I, are 9 months out from a traumatic departure (not connected to Acts 29. This happens everywhere) We are young with little kids. We spent our 20s in seminary together preparing…for what? For absolute trauma at our second church (we were at our first church six years and left amicably) Everything you said is how we felt/feel. Solidarity means so much because there is SO MUCH gaslighting that happens in a situation like this. The senior pastor is not just abusive, he’s…..disturbed. Everyone knew it. Other staff begged us not to leave when we had the chance early on. Said they would support us. Blew off the abuse as just something they all dealt with. Then when we were fired suddenly by the abuser, none of them were to be found. Too afraid of retribution. The abuser has absolute power in the church structure. It was a heartbreaking betrayal and momentous disappointment. We left ministry. We can barely stomach church. Is any of it real? These people were so heartless, cruel and fake. Thank God my husband has a psychology degree to fall back on, but low level mental health jobs pay little and we are struggling. We’re on public health care. He’s 38 and going back to school for counseling so in a few years he can get a better job. We’re barely hanging on until then. Our kids had to switch schools twice in one year as we moved around. The oldest is now struggling with major anxiety and we are taking her to a therapist. The effects of pastoral abuse are far and wide and deep.

    1. Allie, my heart breaks for you. As a women in her sixties who has walked away from the institution of church, I have found so much hope and healing with other Christians who were just my friends.
      My prayer for you is that you would find friends who love you for just being you. Not people wanting to be “in” with leadership or anything else but just a common heart. I will be praying for you and your famiily.

  6. Yes! Yes! Yes! I’ve been crying out for months that it’s not a problem of “leadership style” but we have to call out abuse as abuse. Thank you for writing this out so clearly. I wish more organizations/churches recognize this problem and take appropriate action. Too many of us have been victims to this and many I know are in an almost irrecoverable state. Too much damage has been done. We cannot allow such behavior to go on. How many more victims would it take before the Church wakes up to this problem? How many more lives will it take? Enough is enough. Most Church leaders give a dismissive response labeling our experience as a conflict in “leadership style”, and our inability to “forgive and move on because that is the Biblical way”. The more we hide behind this thing of “leadership style”, and victims having to “forgive” because that is the right thing to do, the more the perpetrators get away without any real consequences, and they are already onto their next victim.

  7. Thank you for your article. I’m writing a blog series, called Why I Left Giant Church Incorporated, about mine and my family’s experience with spiritual abuse three years after we left the church. It has been one of the most painful seasons of our lives. Now that I’m sharing our story, we’re enduring shunning again, loss of close friends, etc. We decided we could no longer remain silent about what happened and it has prompted hundreds of others to share their stories, some publicly, others in private messages to me.

    The church we left is associated with a network of church plants, but each one operates autonomously. This network has numerous churches where toxic and/or abusive leaders pastor. Because there is no oversight or accountability, it seems nothing can be done. The Acts 29 network does have an oversight structure in place, but it is still happening. I’m speaking out to initiate change across the board. How did church fellowship turn into what we’ve made it? I don’t know what needs to change or how to change the system, but I know something needs to change.I’m educating myself and doing what I can to teach people about spiritual abuse and I will continue to share my story. My prayer is we get back to our first love: Jesus Christ. It looks as if we’ve lost sight of Him somehow.

    We are currently attending a small Act 29 church in North Alabama but resist the idea of membership. This sweet fellowship has actually helped us in our healing. My young adult children have not attended church since we left where the abuse happened three years ago.

  8. Oh, my brother! Thank you for boldly speaking reality to this relational, emotional, spiritual cancer. So many other problems in the church stem from these narcissistic wounds. Can’t wait to have you on the podcast!

  9. Hi Chuck
    Thank you very much for this. It is great to know there are people out there who understand exactly what this abuse is.
    I am one of those named in the CT article which revealed the abusive behaviour of Steve Timmis as my wife and I provided accounts of our time at The Crowded House, pastored by Steve Timmis, to Kate Shellnutt in the preparation of the article.
    This account is long, long overdue and leaders who act like Steve Timmis has , from an assumed position of total unaccountability, have to be brought to face what they have done to people and to true repentance before God.
    Thank you for your work in calling out narcissistic leadership.

    Paul

  10. Very profound and informative article! And I agree wholeheartedly! Narcissists aren’t leaders. They may be bosses but not leaders. In fact, narcissists are sick psychopaths who don’t belong in society.

    I’ve known many Narcs throughout my life and they contributed no good to the world!

    Thank you for this article, Chuck!

  11. Thank you so much for highlighting the pain of those who have been gaslighted, silenced, and asked to sign NDAs. There is pain, grief, and loss on every level. You not only lose your job, you lose your community, your church family, your support structure… it makes you question yourself and your own sanity. You spend months laying awake at night replaying every single moment in your head wondering if there was anything you coud have said or done differently to make people listen to you or believe you… people you trusted, people you thought loved you and respected your leadership and opinions… The cut of the betrayal is so deep. It is absolutely heartbreaking. I have never felt such depth of pain in my life.

    1. @ An NDA victim
      Your comment made me cry. I feel for you and for everyone else who has been through these terrible experieces. My heart goes out to you and to fellow sufferers. Bless your heart.

  12. I’m from the Netherlands and yesterday I reveived your book. It’s such a blessing and a tremendous help in overcoming my trauma’s caused by narcissistic abuse in my church. Bless you and your amazing work.

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